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GDC China: Nexon's Kim Charts Social Evolution, Asian Opportunities

GDC China: Nexon's Kim Charts Social Evolution, Asian Opportunities

October 12, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

October 12, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
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Nexon America VP Min Kim (MapleStory, Combat Arms) delivered a speech at GDC China in Shanghai on his company's successes and stumbling blocks in the U.S. market in an attempt to inspire Chinese creators to release their products in the West, and "come and help us start this market."

Kim opened his talk by talking about the shared heritage U.S. and Korean gamers have in the arcades of the past -- playing and enjoying Asian-developed games. "Games do have a history of making it over, and that's why I think there's a chance for developers," says Kim, who grew up in New York City but spent summers with his grandparents in South Korea.

"The point I'm trying to make is that we had a common ancestor. I grew up on both sides, and I think we were playing the same games, for the same reason. But our paths took on different evolutionary roads."

Divergent Paths, Reconnecting

Console games became prevalent in the U.S. and Japan but not in other parts of Asia. "We developed this concept of ownership," says Kim, and game design, visuals and polish, and story and audience relevance became the three major axes games were judged by, by the users. 


As Nexon entered the North American market, Korean games "were many years behind what they were in the West," says Kim, "and what's what we got criticism for as our markets were developing."


However, Asian developers' strength in "service and relationship with the customer... and this evolution into social" are hugely relevant to today's market, since "as console games developed I think we lost a lot of that."


The acceptance of games like Maple Story got another boost, says Kim. "What happened around 1999 was the phenomenon of Pokemon... By 2005 those kids that were seven years old [when Pokemon became a hit] were 13 to 15 years old, and they had grown to like that art sensibility."

And though console gamers criticized the graphics of Maple Story, accessibility is actually more important -- Kim pointing to YouTube (versus HDTV) and MP3s (versus high quality CD audio) as viable, popular alternatives. "Social experiences actually trump the quality factor if you have to choose," says Kim. 


Developing The Audience

Nexon saw a great opportunity to serve a teen audience. "This user was not served online; there was no content for them." While they could play major subscription MMOs, if they were lucky enough to get permission to use their parents' credit card, there was little likelihood that a significant number of their real life friends could also get permission. Because of that, and teens having access to primarily cash, "we realized we had to empower independent purchasing decisions."


Nexon launched its Nexon Cash card in Target and other retailers; that's well known, but what's not as well known is that the company introduced a quest into Maple Story to teach its users that this change was coming to the game. They also put pictures of the store's card rack and gave users the SKU number so they could find and request the item at the store. Nexon has since pulled out of Target, Best Buy, and Walmart, but has a super strong presence in 7-Eleven and, soon, GameStop.

Still, the game media has been resistant to Maple Story, which can be an obstacle to promotion. Says Kim, "The people who were reviewing the games, [the MS audience] wasn't their customer, and they hadn't grown up playing online games... It was very difficult to get coverage, but the market is shifting now." Marketing was the tool, rather than the press coverage console games might go for. 


Content changes were also vital to the North American version of Maple Story -- more skin tones and eye colors were added, as well as quests based around American holidays like Thanksgiving, "which makes the game feel more for the U.S. user."

At Nexon, "everything outside of game development is done in the U.S. The only thing that's really done out of Korea is game development." And even in that case, concept art for American-targeted game areas is generated by U.S.-based artists and then implemented in Korea.

From RPG to FPS

Nexon's free-to-play FPS game, Combat Arms, also presented an adoption issue it came to traditional PC gamers and journalists. "Whether this was the press or it was gamers, they were really resistant to us," says Kim. Kim describes it as the "Bruce Lee problem" -- Counter-Strike was the king of the market, and just as every movie martial artist is compared to Bruce Lee in the West, so too is every FPS compared to CS

Nexon's strategy was to make Combat Arms into Jackie Chan -- "because he had a different style and a different angle," says Kim. The game is speedier, arcadier, and flashier than CS, and was developed targeted at a North American audience in a joint operation between Nexon offices. The team seeks to implement modes no other game on the market is supporting. They also implemented a "nut shot" -- Says Kim, "we put that in as an April fool's prank, but we ended up keeping it in the game because people liked it, and we ended up doing a marketing campaign around it."

The result? Combat Arms has over three million players in North America. Kim ascribes a significant portion of Nexon's 30% year-over-year growth in July and August 2009 to Combat Arms' success.

North American Struggles

Not everthing has been rosy for Nexon in North America. The company put its game Kart Rider into beta in the U.S., but elected not to launch the game after that period. Kim says that it wasn't because the beta went poorly. "People feel like the beta failed and that's why we didn't launch it, but it's more complicated than that. The U.S. didn't really have the market yet," says Kim, for a truly casual online game.

"We went on a silent path with Kart Rider," says Kim. "I think one of our mistakes was the perception [created by the decision to] not talk about it. People assumed Kart Rider was not successful; that was not the case at all. The numbers were looking really good. What we saw... was that the market was pretty small."

Years of audience evolution in Korea, with casual web games, and MMO games in parallel had created a sizable audience ready for Kart Rider, but North America's audience was too small, says Kim. "Korea had evolved through years of building a more casual market. [In North America] Kart Rider would have been the first game to meet the audience, and we felt that it would have been a waste of what Kart Rider was." Kim said that the launch will come "when the market is ready."

Nexon also founded a studio called Humanature in Vancouver, but shut it down this year. The studio's Klei co-produced game, Sugar Rush, was shaping up, says Kim, but the 2009 "economic shift of the market last year scared the crap out of us." However, Kim believes in the viability of domestic development in North America.

Nexon's Future View

Kim is particularly excited by the company's upcoming 3D MMO game, Dragon Nest, which he thinks has the polish and quality to start pulling gamers away from consoles and toward PCs. "I think this is going to bridge the gap between console gamers to online," says Kim. "It's only a year or two years before the online games start to look like the console games. I think that we'll start to see the console users shifting over to the PC to take part in these online games."

Nexon has also recently begun rolling out its BlockParty.com branded social network for gamers. "We felt like it best represented what we were trying to do in North America," says Kim. He says that the decision to create BlockParty was inspired by Valve's Steam and Blizzard's Battle.Net services.

Another reason was that user behavior suggested it -- some gamers that quit Maple Story still frequented the Nexon forums to maintain contact with their in-game friends. And gamers who waited for friends in Combat Arms became frustrated by the inability to matchmake outside of the game. Says Kim, "in-game friends might not be your out of game friends, so you might not want to add them to Facebook or give them your email address."

Kim closed the main part of his presentation by discussing the incipient "penguin army" -- or aging Club Penguin users who will soon be looking for more to do online. This formed the backbone of his GDC Austin presentation. He believes this audience will be ripe for Nexon's products as they hit their teens, around 2015.

The Social Competitor

"This is where I used to end the presentation," says Kim, but social games, like those from Zynga and Playfish on Facebook, have thrown a wrench into Nexon's expectations for the market. "This is the part our company really didn't forecast for and did not expect," he admits.

Ironically, when it comes to these games, "the same criticisms we've gotten, we've given to these games as well," says Kim, laughing -- they have poor graphics, design, and polish. "We're hoping that people quickly evolve even on these platforms to want higher quality content," he says.

When asked by the audience what Nexon's plan for social games or iPhone products are, Kim was noncommittal. "We don't do any iPhone stuff or any social games, but we've been looking at it hard," he says. He expects that, like the PC, people will start to look to more they can do with the iPhone as they spend more time with it.

"I feel like there is a market for that, especially with the social games. I'd like to access them on the iPhone but that doesn't exist for a lot of these games. I think iPhone is going to shift from individual downloads to a service and customer-oriented model," says Kim, which Nexon could take advantage of.


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